I was listening to a classic rock playlist today and Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd was featured.
It reminded me of a homeless man named James, who asked me to preach his brother’s funeral. We played this song as a memorial to John. Listen to the song as you read this article I first published in 2006.
The Staying of James
I was asked to do a funeral for a homeless man’s brother. He is a great man, this guy James, he’s just been through some hard knocks and leaned on the wrong things. We’re not so far away from where he is at, not really. It’s just that our vices are more acceptable. Self-righteousness, religiosity, secret lusts, greed, you list them and in just a small group of the “hallelujah’s” as my grandfather use to call us, you’ll find them all. James’ vices are more visible and harder to conceal, but you’ve got to love the get-back-up spirit this guy’s got. This funeral was not as much about the passing of John, James‘ brother, as it was about the staying of James.
It’s about struggling with grief and unanswered questions. It’s about the darkness of the moment and all of the wondering.
It’s about waking up tomorrow and continuing on, about struggling to stay sober, working to pay the bills, about trying to stay balanced in a world that is so upside down and crazy.
It’s about life, yes, life without John here physically, but not gone from the memories.
But most of all it’s about hope.
“Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.” Romans 15:13
As we sat there, we were letting go of a loved one, in hope that this was not the end, that there is an eternal life that is in the Hands of a loving and righteous God.
And because it was not the end, God will give strength for today and a hope for tomorrow and all of the memories of John, and what he meant, and the times of fighting and the times of laughing and the times of crying.
And like a photographer that sits in a dark room, treating the images he’s captured until they become permanent representations on glossy paper, today was the day to sit in a dark room (no other day will seem darker concerning John) taking old memories and washing them in words of thanks and words of forgiveness and words of hope. The memories will become softer and the edges won’t be as sharp. The laughter becomes sweeter and the tears mean more after time has passed.
Or we can hold on to the bitter moments and the unresolved feelings and hold onto feelings of resentment, which means “to feel again” and the images carried in spiritual wallets and hung on the walls of the soul will be hard edged and sharp lined with no gloss, just grain and grit, unfocused and tarnished.
It was not a time to explain the mystery of death, because I couldn’t. I only came with hope, the hope that will carry through the hard times, the dark days and the lonely nights. That hope for me is a relationship with Jesus Christ.
He doesn’t take away the pain of loss, but He cares and I find comfort in that.
He doesn’t replace my loved ones that have gone on before, but He’s there for me in their absence. I find peace in that.
He doesn’t dry up the tears and answer all of the questions right when I ask, but He’s showing me, as much as I can grasp at the moment, and I am beginning to know that hope is real and is pursuing me, even now as He pursues us all.
And in the dark room, if He’s allowed, He can help fix those images of the past in our minds that will become the cherished memories of John and his life in the future. Because we are broken, when we say the word “fix” we automatically think of changing the images, of touching up the blemishes on our memories, of manipulating the past so it is better, nicer and more acceptable. But to a photographer to “fix” is to make permanent. To let what is be what it is. We spend so much time trying to change what can’t be changed that we never step out of the dark room and walk in the light of right now and tomorrow.
Jesus was the light that shined in the dark hearts of men. The beauty of that is when you expose negatives to light, in the right environment, they become positives. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world so we bring all of our negatives: shame, sin, immorality, hate, prejudice and Christ creates in us a new image.
And some of the things that can’t become positive, Jesus doesn’t wash with His Word, doesn’t transform as a part of our new creature image. Instead, He takes it and exposes it to the fullness of His glory and the film of our lives, the snapshots of those moments become completely destroyed and unusable by us or by our enemy. No evidence, not one image remembered.
That’s when we have to let God have all of the images, but we hoard grainy old “Polaroids” and low-res digital shots in the dark corners of our hearts, and take them out when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves or when we stumble. And we hold them out to God to remind Him of how unworthy we are and how undeserving we are of His grace. When we do that He gently takes the images from us and washes us again, pointing to the image and making us realize that it’s a fake, a look-alike from the past.
He, Jesus Christ, is the express image of God and we spend our lives trying to develop ourselves to be like Him. He sees us and smiles as we smile and we hold the gaze of the Eternal One. That’s what life is about, and the last beautiful image, when we finally put off this mortal body and put on Christ, is in the hands of the Master photographer, Jesus Christ. He knows when the appointment has been set and He is there, like a Father, with His camera, ready to snap the last shot as we pass from life to death in the moment, the twinkling of an eye. We pass from the world where we look at images of Christ through a glass darkly into the very presence of His reality and we know as we are known.
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. Psalm 116:15